Automation: Two Cautionary Tales


I stopped by my neighborhood pharmacy this morning and asked the desk pharmacist if the annual flu shot was available and if so could I get mine. “Yes,” she said. “Date of birth?” I expected that she was going to ask my name, but she started talking with the other pharmacist to check which vaccines were in stock, and directed me to the window where clients normally fill out paperwork.

It would become the second of two encounters with the new economy in less than a week that gave me food for thought about the benefits of human interaction and connections versus automation. It made me desperate for companies to reconsider the difference between cost and value, and to realize what they are losing by focusing only on the former.

Before I knew it, she had a form printed out with my name and other information on it. “Wow.” I said and asked if they had facial recognition software. “No, you’re just in the system because you’ve been here before,” she said.

As I waited for the other pharmacist to administer my vaccine, I puzzled over it. Maybe she had asked my name and I gave it to her and just didn’t notice? No, I was quite sure I hadn’t given it to her.

Then it was my turn. As he swabbed my skin with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball, I asked the man about to jab my shoulder how she knew my name. “She’s just got a really good memory,” he said. “I wish I had a memory like that.”

Me too! I was impressed, and relieved that she was simply very good at what she did and that it wasn’t a machine recognizing me. It wasn’t creepy after all. And I felt bad that I didn’t know her name, because she had to remember a lot more people than I did.

And then I was sad, because I realized how undervalued that kind of skill has become. Once upon a time in a much simpler world, nobody would have been freaked out by the pharmacist recognizing them. We would have expected it, especially in the days of mom and pop stores before giant, impersonal drugstore chains took over seemingly every city block.

Which brings me to the other incident a few days before, at my neighborhood grocery store which was recently bought by a big chain.

I went shopping first thing Saturday morning, looking for ingredients for a chicken stew now that fall cooking weather is here. The store was utter chaos. It had been doing renovations, but this took things to a whole new level of disruption.

Sparing you the details, suffice it to say I was very unhappy that it took 15 minutes to find a block of Colby Jack cheese that they had moved someplace inexplicable, far from the cheese it used to be near (which also had moved), and that they had shrunk the produce selection yet again. There were no signs to say where things were now.

Not only were there no staff to help navigate, but there was a single lonely human-run checkout line open. Over the past several weeks, the store had installed a bunch of automated self-checkout machines, which I had tried a couple of times without much trouble when the lines were long.

But whenever possible, I had continued to use human checkout lines, both to help the checkers hold on to their jobs as long as possible and because I genuinely enjoyed chatting with a few of the checkers. I have not seen my favorites in a few weeks and fear that they have been fired in the name of cost savings.

The line today was way too long, and it turned out that the self-checkout machine I picked was a disaster. Chicago, as you may know, taxes disposable bags; I prefer reusable bags anyway. The machine did not like the reusable bags I had brought. Not only would it not let me continue scanning items when I tried to use my bag because it had not been programmed properly to accept the weight, it yelled at me louder and louder to put my items in the bagging area –which, by the way, was too small for my bag anyway.

Again, I’ll spare you the tedium of the rest of my struggle with the infernal machine, but about the third time I cursed at it, the sole employee the store had in place to help with self-checkout came over to help. She had to help another customer the next machine over at the same time.

To get the machine to resume scanning, she had to pile my things on one of the “bagging area” platforms without a bag –so that I would have to re-bag it when I was done. And the machine gave her so much trouble finalizing the checkout that she had to move my tab over to the special machine apparently designated for fixing things when the other machines misbehaved.

She was amazingly good spirited and seemed genuinely happy to help. I thanked her profusely for her patience and headed home.

Once I finished chopping vegetables and getting the slow cooker started, I headed to my computer to drop a note to the store and plead for my favorite checkers’ jobs. After I hit “submit/send,” their website gave me an error message to the effect that the site was having trouble. I don’t know if the message made it through or not, but I haven’t received a reply or acknowledgement. Score another one for technology.

Is this really the future? No amount of cost savings is worth what the rush to automation is doing to these stores and the way it is changing how their customers feel about them. And it’s going to show up in the bottom line.

But unless companies recognize that they are losing more value than they are gaining by cutting costs, it certainly appears that we are moving to a world where all human contact and customer service will be available only at premium prices. (And I wonder how much they are really saving. Those machines and the high-priced consultants who made these recommendations can’t have come cheap.)

As for me, I will be shopping at less convenient grocery stores from now on since this big chain has destroyed this one. And whenever possible, I will give my business to the shrinking number of stores that treat their employees and customers like human beings.

This article is part of my new LinkedIn series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

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Michele Wucker

About Author

Michele Wucker is a global thought leader and the author, most recently, of THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore (St Martin's Press, 2016). Learn more about her at

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